CLNS Media Headquarters — Patriots quarterback Cam Newton turned upfield with 37 seconds left in what appeared to be a positive step towards his first game-winning drive in New England.
The Pats offense was finding itself for the first time in weeks, but then Buffalo’s Justin Zimmer forced a fumble that effectively ended the game, and maybe New England’s season.
The Bills, thanks to Zimmer’s timely punch, beat the Patriots for the first time in Sean McDermott’s tenure as head coach in a 24-21 victory on Sunday afternoon in Buffalo.
New England’s odds of winning the AFC East or making the playoffs are now long, making this season officially a rebuilding project for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick moving forward.
Although Belichick won’t tank, he has to be realistic, and that doesn’t mean pulling the plug on his quarterback (Cam is the starter, per Belichick) or conducting a trade-deadline fire sale.
Still, at 2-5, the Patriots’ season is effectively over, so now the 2020 campaign becomes about who the Pats think is a part of their future and giving those players game experience.
The last two rookie classes should see significantly more playing time, and Belichick needs to take a more aggressive approach to team building than he has during the dynasty years.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the rebuild, and New England won’t fix all its problems at one trade deadline; we are in for a real rebuild in Foxboro, so get ready for a grind.
Here are ten things we learned from Sunday’s loss as New England falls to 2-5 on the season:
1. Cam Newton Plays Best Game Since COVID-19 Diagnosis Until Final Play
The most frustrating aspect of Sunday’s loss was that Newton and the offense had their best performance since the quarterback contracted the coronavirus one month ago.
Newton had his best QBR since Week 2 (51.8), had a solid 50 percent success rate on his eight carries, and had a positive EPA per drop-back for the first time in four starts (0.06).
Cam was even finding a way through the air by hitting Jakobi Meyers (six catches, 58 yards) and Damiere Byrd (three catches, 39 yards) in a few critical situations in the second half.
Here, Newton made his best throw in over a month. The Pats ran play-action from the gun with Byrd crossing behind the linebacker level on an over route. Newton used a pump fake to hold the flat defender on Meyers’s return route and then threw to Byrd in-stride for a 22-yard gain.
Earlier, Newton made a play in a situation that he has struggled in recently: creating out of structure. Cam made several negative plays in scramble mode in previous weeks, but this week he was able to find Ryan Izzo after eluding the rush and drawing the defense for 15 yards.
And as he usually does, Newton contributed on the ground, including a touchdown and a 19-yard scamper.
However, all that came crashing down when Zimmer punched the ball out, Newton’s seventh turnover in his last four starts, which will kill the momentum of any offense.
Newton continues to be accountable by owning his mistakes, saying, “it’s unacceptable. I have to protect the ball better,” in his post-game press conference following the loss.
As much as you feel for Newton, who is saying all the right things, eventually, the on-field production needs to match the attitude off the field to keep putting support behind the former MVP.
Right now, Newton doesn’t look like the future at quarterback beyond this season.
2. Pass-Happy Bills Expose Patriots Run Defense in “Styles Win Fights” Game Plan
Buffalo’s offense threw the ball more on first and second-down than every team in the league besides the Seattle Seahawks entering Week 8.
The Bills want to sling it, and often, yet even a typically aggressive passing offense realized that the best way to attack New England’s defense was on the ground and evolved to the matchup.
Buffalo ran the ball 28 times on early-downs, and 32 times overall, compared to only 18 pass attempts for quarterback Josh Allen. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll exposed a weakness, and Buffalo produced a ridiculously good 0.29 EPA per play on their 32 attempts.
New England’s entire run defense system relies on setting the edge, and that’s where my biggest corners are, even more so than inside linebacker.
Here, the Bills are running outside zone to the strong side, day one install type stuff. Buffalo gets the edge when left tackle Dion Dawkins, with some help from the combo’ing tight end, turns John Simon inside. Buffalo also used jet motion to get slot corner Jonathan Jones moving in the wrong direction, and with the edge blown, Zack Moss rattled off a 21-yard gain.
As much as the second-level struggled, the Pats have to force runners back into their run-stuffers, or the entire scheme breaks down.
In other words, it’s not on Bentley or the inside linebackers to move laterally and tackle Moss; the Pats want the ball to flow back to Bentley rather than him flowing to the ball.
Still, there were instances where the edge was set, and Bentley whiffed on tackle-attempts at an alarming rate. Both plays are just bad football.
The Patriots aren’t going to fix their run defense unless players start executing at a level that we haven’t seen this season. Most likely, they need new players in those spots.
3. Patriots Juggling Aggressiveness Costs Them in Close Game
Belichick’s explanation for kicking a field goal on third-down with 12 seconds remaining in the half was that it was a low probability that New England would score a touchdown there.
It seems logical, but the Pats coaching staff couldn’t figure itself out all afternoon regarding when to be aggressive and when to be conservative.
In the first half, New England dialed up runs on third-and-12, 2nd-and-20, and ran a draw on third-and-two with seven defenders in the run fit and a safety in the gap they were attacking (that might be on Newton for not checking out of the play).
(via Ben Baldwin)
Then, there was the decision to punt down eight points on fourth-and-six from Buffalo’s 43-yard line, which according to Ben Baldwin’s probability model, was a clear “go for it” scenario.
After all that, Belichick decided to attempt an onside kick late in the third quarter that set Buffalo up for a short 45-yard touchdown drive following a game-tying TD drive of their own.
Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels crafted a good plan given his limited resources by using Newton as a runner, moving the pocket, and dialing up more motion and RPOs.
But New England’s coaching staffs’ situational play-calling likely cost their team points on Sunday, a tough pill to swallow in a three-point loss.
4. Damien Harris’s Second-Half Surge Lights Spark
Patriots running back Sony Michel, who is currently on injured reserve, is probably never getting his lead-back role back from second-year running back Damien Harris.
Harris is taking advantage of his opportunities in Michel’s absence, carrying the ball 16 times while accumulating 0.23 EPA per rush with an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
The Alabama product has another gear of burst compared to Michel and has excellent contact balance to churn out difficult yards between the tackles and make yards after contact.
On his 22-yard touchdown run, the Patriots ran fullback counter with Harris getting some great blocks from fullback Jakob Johnson and right guard Shaq Mason. With those two clearing out the running lane, Harris exploded through the hole and made it look easy as he ran through the safety as the last line of defense.
Here, Harris gets great initial blocking again on a lead play where he’s hitting backside instead of following the fullback, a good wrinkle by McDaniels. Harris’s initial momentum is stalled after a few yards, but he runs through the pile for more yardage.
The Patriots also successfully tossed the ball out to Harris on their crack-toss scheme against Buffalo, and Newton contributed on a crack-blocking scheme on his touchdown run.
Although the Patriots offense is limited through the air, they can run the football at an elite level.
5. Jakobi Meyers Somehow Still Gets Open in Short/Intermediate Level
The one good aspect of CBS’s broadcast was an overhead view of the field where Buffalo had all 11 players on their defense within 12 yards of the line of scrimmage.
New England’s offense puts zero fear into defenses vertically, and teams play almost exclusively single-high coverages, as nobody thinks the Pats receivers can run past them.
Despite defenses sitting on the run and short passes, Patriots wideout Jakobi Meyers is still finding ways to get open on short and intermediate routes, which is amazing.
Meyers ran an over route off play-action with an excellent adjustment back to the ball on the first play above. On the next catch, Meyers gets the defense to think it’s another over route but instead breaks outside on a bending corner route to find a soft spot in the zone.
Later, Meyers ran a terrific slant off a fake screen concept where he paced his route perfectly and created separation in his break to convert on third down (hey, look! Motion!).
The defense knows that Meyers has a limited route tree and will stop down most of his vertical releases, yet he’s still effective, speaking to his prowess as a route runner.
Many will question New England’s coaching staff for taking so long to play Meyers, who was limited throughout camp, in a larger role this season.
But the good news is that Meyers solidified that he can play at this level after an impressive undrafted rookie campaign a year ago.
6. Pats Rookie LB Josh Uche Flashes in NFL Debut
Patriots rookie linebacker Josh Uche finally made his NFL debut after landing on injured reserve to start the season, offering some positivity.
Uche played 13 snaps in his debut and was effective, making two plays on the ball that showed his athleticism in space and pass-rush ability, two things the Pats desperately need in their front seven.
Here, Uche shows good discipline and speed-to-power to bull rush the left tackle collapsing the pocket and then does a nice job of containing Allen as he breaks the pocket. Well done not to run past the quarterback or overcommit to his rush, thus opening an escape for Allen.
Later, Uche made a great play in coverage flexed out at wide corner on the running back. The Patriots were in man coverage with a three-man rush, likely cover-one double robber, and Uche peels off his man as Allen takes off to tackle the Bills quarterback well short of the sticks.
After watching weeks of Ja’Whaun Bentley getting exposed and missing tackles, it’s Uche time, Let’s see what the rookie can do.
Uche certainly offers more speed, athleticism, and versatility than Bentley, who is Waldo on the Patriots defense for every offensive play-caller.
7. Pats CB JC Jackson Continues to Star Around Teammates Struggles
Patriots cornerback JC Jackson isn’t allowing his teams’ struggles to affect his play, as he continues to be the only Pats player that shows up at a high-level each week.
By my estimation, Jackson has been the best player on New England’s roster this season, and it’s not close.
On his interception, Jackson is in man coverage on Stefon Diggs with safety help in the middle of the field. Diggs’s pre-snap alignment tells Jackson to play inside leverage while using the sideline as his help. Jackson funnels Diggs into the sideline and stays over the top, and is there when Allen throws to the wrong shoulder on the pass.
Jackson is a restricted free agent following the season, and with Stephon Gilmore’s future in doubt, the odds of a contract extension for JC seem sky-high.
8. Pats RB James White Still Performing in Tragic Season
Although he only had two catches for 35 yards, White deserves credit for how he has conducted himself following his father’s tragic death in September.
Speaking to White this week, it’s clear that he isn’t himself because of the tragedy, which is understandable and makes any contributions this season even more impressive.
White’s 28-yard catch-and-run was the longest play from scrimmage for the Patriots on Sunday when he ran away Bills linebacker A.J. Klein and got a nice block from Izzo downfield.
White would be more heavily involved if it wasn’t for all the off-field turmoil he’s going through this season.
9. Patriots “Pony” Packages, 21-Personnel Pace Offense
With only one tight end active, the Patriots played 13 snaps without a tight end on the field out of their 20-personnel “pony” package and found some success. The grouping gave New England three wide receivers and two running backs on the field, leading to some mismatches and misdirection in the backfield. The Pats also played most of the second half out of their traditional 21-personnel with fullback Jakob Johnson, which was their most successful grouping in terms of yards per play. New England will likely need to lean on those packages often in the second half of the season.
10. Play of the Game: Rex Burkhead’s Third-and-Ten Conversion
As much as the play call initially made me cringe, Rex Burkhead’s superman impression to turn a third-and-ten handoff into a first down was terrific. Burkhead’s contact balance is outstanding. He’s one tough SOB.